A New Model for Employee Communication, Part 8: An Introduction to Culture

Posted on August 9, 2017 8:34 am by | Internal | A Model for Employee Communication

A New Model for Employee Communication, Part 8: Culture

This is the latest installment in a series of posts exploring a new model of employee communication, one designed to deliver measurable results that demonstrate the impact on the organization in ways that matter to leaders. In this post, we begin a review of the four areas where employee communication strategies should focus their efforts, the four circles at the center of the model, starting with culture.

Revised Employee Communication Model

The series:
Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Overview
Part 3: Alignment
Part 4: Listening
Part 5: Consultation
Part 6: Branding
Part 7: Channels

The four overlapping circles at the center of the model represent the best opportunities for employee communication to affect an organization on a day-to-day basis. Communication by itself cannot directly change anything, but it can create the conditions under which employees at all levels can take actions that do drive business results. The first of these critical areas of focus is culture.

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

CultureManagement theorist Peter Drucker coined that phrase based on his long experience. Few proclamations about business have been truer. A strategy is a rational approach to achieving a goal. Culture is the way things are around here. If the way things are around here aren’t conducive to the strategy, strategy always loses. Recent headlines are replete with examples:

  • Uber has suffered the deletion of its app from hundreds of thousands of smartphones following repeated tales of sexism that is inherent in its toxic “bro” culture. The situation wasn’t helped during Delete Uberthe protest at New York’s JFK airport against U.S. President Donald Trump’s travel ban: While the New York Taxi Workers Alliance called for a one-hour work stoppage, it appeared that Uber activated surge pricing, leading some to think they were undermining the protest and others to believe they were profiting from it. The company’s explanation didn’t satisfy anyone. Lyft, the Uber competitor, has been the primary beneficiary of all those Uber defections.

    United's dragging incident
  • United Airlines was the focus of weekly news coverage of passenger tales of abuse that began with a passenger dragged off a plane when he refused to give up his seat to a United employee. Reporting of that incident prompted passengers on other United flights to have their smartphone video cameras at the ready to capture incidents that normally would be shrugged off. While several pundits dismissed the coverage in light of the airline’s strong earnings report, it’s worth remembering that research finds nearly 80% of job seekers won’t apply to a company getting bad press, which could create much longer-term problems for United. At the root of the situation: a culture that looks inward rather than promoting an excellent customer experience. (Not coincidentally, customer experience is another one of the four areas where outstanding employee communication can have an outsized impact on a company’s fortunes.)

    VW Scandal
  • Volkswagen—The German auto giant experienced great pain over its emissions scandal, both financial and reputational. A culture that exereted enormous pressure to maintain sales led employees to practice deception in order to claim low emissions that attracted buyers. Early analyses led some to think VW wouldn’t survive the scandal, though brutally honest communication in the wake of the revelation has propelled the company to the worldwide leader in car sales. However, accusations of collusion among automakers including VW could derail that success.

    Wells Fargo scandal
  • Wells Fargo is the most egregious offender in recent memory. On the commercial side of the bank, a lofty set of values statements were utterly ignored in a culture that drove managers to make extraordinary demands of low-paid employees, setting new accounts targets for existing customers that led to brutally long hours and employees who felt they had no choice but to open credit card and other accocunts without customers’ knowledge. Wells Fargo has embarked on a campaign to rebuild lost trust, but new revelations continue to be exposed, meaning the company is in for a long, slow slog.

What makes things the way they are?

By employing the tactics represented in the outer ring of the employee communication model, communicators can reinforce the culture leaders envision and even promote culture change. To do so, though, employee communicators need to understand what drives culture and how communication can affect it. Over the next five posts in this series, I will explore each of the five drivers of culture:

  • Vision—“The vision thing,” as George H.W. Bush was quoted saying derisively, is not as soft and fluffy as some leaders think. Employees (and voters) need to know what the company (or country) aspires to if they are going to invest themselves in helping it get there. (Shrugging off the importance of articulating “where he wanted to take the country” didn’t help Bush’s campaign, which he lost to Bill Clinton’s simply-articulated vision of a thriving economy.)

  • Values—I have lately become fixated on corporate values, which I believe will have a growing impact on a company’s competitiveness. For a variety of reasons, employees, prospects, investors, and customers have begun making decisions based on a company’s clear demonstration of its commitment to its values, that set of principles that govern the behavior of a company and its employees. Too often (as in Wells Fargo’s case), the company’s stated values are in conflict with its the principles that actually dictate behavior. (FYI, I curate content on this issue in a Flipboard magazine called, “The Values-Driven Marketplace”.)

  • Practices—How things actually get done in the company contribute mightily to the culture. Consider mandatory weekly meetings even when there’s nothing to discuss, wasting employees’ time and elevating their blood pressure. Or outdated policies that make it harder for employees to be as efficient as they know they can be. Or a lackadaisical approach to safety that makes employees feel vulnerable and unimportant. Or a culture that discourages junior team members from speaking up in discussions despite leadership’s professed commitment to a flat hierarchy.

  • Place—From the city in which a company chooses to put its operations (was a manufacturing center situated in a city or country where the local culture is at odds with the one the company is trying to build?) to the physical environment in which employees spend their days, place influences employees’ sense of the company’s character.

  • People—How an organization treats its employees is perhaps the greatest determinant of culture. (It is, according to the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, the most important attribute the public considers when deciding whether to trust a company.) Focusing on people also drives decisions around other each of the preceding dimensions of culture.

We’ll get started in the next post with a deeper dive into vision—and the role employee communications should play in instilling the organization’s vision in its workforce.

The graphics for this series were created by Brian O’Mara-Croft.

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